January 30, 2009

Michael Steele Takes Over as RNC Chair: Feels a little "me too" ish

The GOP surprised me a bit yesterday and elected Michael Steele as RNC chair in what by some accounts apparently was a very dramatic day of voting. Steele appears to have gained the advantage as the voting rounds continued from the support of Ken Blackwell, who dropped out and threw his support to Steele when it was clear he would not win the day. I like the way top GOP brothers are standing by each other. I'm lukewarm to Blackwell, but I like the way he threw his support to the other qualified brother vying for the top spot when he concluded he couldn't win.

Fellow black conservative blogger Cobb likes Steele, and his "hail fellow, well met" is good enough for me. Steele earns praise from the conservative brethren around the web at RedState and Hot Air, and by most accounts, this is a capable brother. I have no doubts that he is qualified and able to lead the GOP. But I gotta tell you, some of the atmospherics are cringe inducing, like the following:

I have to wince a bit. Roman Buhler waxing poetic about Lincoln and how he would be proud the GOP elected a black man because of his character, not his color. If you have to say it so giddily, you're more focused on the color than you want to admit. Prencilla Smith echoes the giddiness, stating that Steele doesn't just represent African Americans. Considering how little blacks participate in the GOP, thats pretty self evident. The emphasis on his race in her comments is out of proportion to the statement that its not because he's black. Steele himself makes the statement that the GOP doesn't concede any vote, and presumably he's talking about black voters and perhaps latino voters too.

But anybody who's crossed swords with me in rhetorical combat about the GOP knows that I believe the GOP to be fundamentally disinterested in black voters as a constituency. Thats not an accusation of racism. Its just the bald facts. The GOP does not believe that the black voter bloc is necessary or essential to their aspirations for governance. That is a sentiment held by both its leadership, which Steele himself has stated, and by its rank and file, though we try not to talk about it. Electing a black man as head of the RNC is unlikely to change this fundamental issue, nor does Steele's election mean that the party is more interested in blacks joining the GOP. It remains to be seen if the GOP will stop using coded racial messaging and wedge tactics pitting blacks against their base as standard parts of its strategy to win.

There seems to be an expectation that Steele will change the GOP's messaging, make it more effective to voter blocs that have stayed out of the conservative coalition like blacks. No amount of messaging change up though is going to fix the GOP's disinterest and I will watch with interest how outreach efforts to blacks take shape. Whether or not the party makes a move to be more welcoming to blacks, inevitably there will be the usual tone deaf messaging behavior somewhere in the party structure or in its affiliates. I'll watch with interest Steele's leadership at those moments, and the GOP's followship even more so.

So far, Steele's rhetorical performance has induced at least one cringe response out of me and is perhaps an early signal that he may be more a change of face than anything else in the subconscious of the GOP. Asked about his message to President Obama upon his election as RNC chair, he answered;

“I would say to the new president, congratulations. It is going to be an honor to spar with him,” Steele said. “And I would follow that up with: How do you like me now?”

"How do you like me now?" You begin your history making run as the first black RNC chair with this kind of signifying reference in black rapper vernacular to the current President? You make that reference because Obama is black. If it was Joe Biden or Hillary, that would not have been your statement. Obama spent the campaign running from this kind of monkey signifying BS, trying to have the campaign be about his ideas, not his color. Steele gets the gig and this is whats coming out of his mouth on day one!

"How do you like me now?" What kind of challenge is that to issue to the President? I'm a brother and you a brother, so let me address you like rappers talk? I went to Georgetown and you went to Harvard, but let me talk to you like Kool Moe Dee? You want to begin your tenure by positioning yourself as the new GOP HNIC vs. the Democrat HNIC? Triflin.

And I'm sure that disrespectful little snarky statement tickled his GOP brethren to no end, but it may well be a signal from the get go that the tone and content of the GOP's messaging to blacks will not undergo any real change. Obama got the votes of 98% of black America, but the new RNC chair who is black wants to start his reign on day one by getting in Obama's face? That doesn't show much respect and if you disrespect Obama, by proxy, you are disrespecting the 98% of blacks that voted for him. Thats not a change in tone or content, and if the GOP thinks a disrespectful message becomes more palatable because it issues out of a black face, they should think again.